Monthly Archives: July 2010

IRM by charlotte gainsbourg

by Gordon

Pitchfork: 8.4         Rolling Stone: 3.5/5         Metacritic: 80         Spin: 3.5/5

 

Released: December 2009
Tracklisting:
  1. Master’s Hands
  2. IRM
  3. Le Chat Du Café Des Artistes
  4. In the End
  5. Heaven Can Wait
  6. Me and Jane Doe
  7. Vanities
  8. Time of the Assassins [LISTEN]

  9. Trick Pony
  10. Greenwich Mean Time
  11. Dandelion
  12. Voyage
  13. La Collectionneuse
  14. Looking Glass Blues

   I don’t know if it’s just me, but I’m struggling to make up my mind about Charlotte Gainsbourg. Is she beautiful, or not at all? Is she a great actress, or hardly average? Is she a brilliant singer-songwriter, or just a good faker? I tend to give her the benefit of the doubt, but just when I find myself taken by one of her songs, I can’t help but question the amount of artistic input Gainsbourg can take credit for. I like her voice…earthy, confident, a bit deep. But I fear most congratulations for the upsides to her third and latest, IRM, belong to Beck, who wrote and produced all but one of the album’s tracks (the other not even belonging to Gainsbourg).

   “Master’s Hands” is a smart opener, setting a hushed but itching-to-explode vibe that rings true for much of the album. An airy, acoustic strumming pairs with tribal-esque drumming patterns, a backdrop to Gainsbourg’s bold yet near-whispering vocals until, just after halfway through, she breaks into a haunting escalade of “ooohhs”. Title track “IRM” picks up to a more electronic, chaotic yet vocally subdued tune that doesn’t do much for me melodically but is different enough that it at least shows that originality still resides in Beck’s court.

   Gainsbourg returns to her native French roots with “Le Chat Du Café Des Artistes”, a Jean-Pierre Ferland-written track which is notable, perhaps only, for its dark symphonic landscape, with strings reaching high into minor chords and bringing to mind early villain-themed songs to James Bond soundtracks.

   “Heaven Can Wait” is the true gem of the album, and features the most vocal help from Beck himself. The pair make a fine duet atop slow-paced but near-ragtime piano, corresponding guitar strums and simple, tambourine-led percussion (and eventually a little help from the brass). The unnervingly offbeat video, featuring a dinosaur in a wig in a bathtub, a giant rat being held up at knife point, and an astronaut with pancakes for a head, to name a few scenes, can be seen below.

   “Time of the Assassins” beams for reason only of its chorus, which breaks through from amidst Gainsbourg’s typical lull-you-to-sleep demeanor, the audio spectrum opening wide in all directions, most memorably to include a haunting chorale of “aaahhs” right behind her slightly more optimistic pitch.

   But Beck’s studio magic tricks can’t save every song from the sometimes lackluster performances by Gainsbourg. “Greenwich Mean Time”, for example, sees a cacophony of clinks and clacks combine to form an unsuccessful canvas to Gainsbourg’s megaphone-altered exclamations (her lack of tonal energy, which at this point can be expected, doesn’t help either). In perhaps aiming for some combination of wiser, older and more serious, IRM skips on the more optimistic lifts from songs like “Songs That We Sing” (video here) from her previous 5:55, lifts I found myself longing for.

   I’m sure Charlotte does at least a semi-solid instrumental effort on the album, this more likely than not including much of the guitar work. But it’s IRM‘s idiosyncratic bells and whistles that help create its almost time-and-place altering effect that allow it to stand out in an otherwise bland market, even for Indie music, and Beck may well take the bulk of that credit. But ultimately IRM falls a little flat, serving better as an accent to a day’s moment, than worthy of being the center of the moment itself.

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THE SUBURBS by arcade fire

by Gordon

 

Pitchfork: 8.6          Rolling Stone: 4/5          Metacritic: 86          Spin: 4.5/5

 

Released: August 2010
Tracklisting:
  1. The Suburbs
  2. Ready to Start
  3. Modern Man
  4. Rococo
  5. Empty Room
  6. City With No Children
  7. Half Light I
  8. Half Light II (No Celebration)
  9. Suburban War
  10. Month of May
  11. Wasted Hours
  12. Deep Blue
  13. We Used to Wait [LISTEN]

  14. Sprawl (Flatland)
  15. Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)
  16. The Suburbs (Continued)

   A little premature to be giving a grade to a brand new album by one of the most significant bands to grace my generation? Absolutely. Have I figured out how influential these songs will be on me over the course of my life? Not at all. A little too hard to wait to put a good word in? Yup.

   It’s too easy to say and too hard not to say it: “They’ve done it again.” Meaning: They’ve made another Arcade Fire album. They’ve done so little wrong and so much right over their celebrated lifespan that putting it so simply really is all one needs to say, or know. While at least as different from its predecessors as Neon Bible was from Funeral, it still possesses that inescapable air that seems to bind all of their work into the nice, familiar musical gift it is.

   Though taking a stab at more than a handful of previously un-tinkered-with sounds and instruments, they’ve somehow managed to infuse it all with that same dark yet curiously happy mix of Arcade Fire energy, their themed frustrations this time directed, not surprisingly, at the cold, mediocrity-inspiring lifestyles and landscapes of your everyday everyman suburbs. Theirs…and ours.

   Setting the mood and point at the start with the album’s title track, “The Suburbs” begins with a rollicking piano romp whose playfulness, when one considers the lyrically grave implications confessed by Butler, come off as near sarcastic, especially when coupled with the haunting and more tonally honest string accompaniment. “You always seemed so sure/ That one day we’d be fighting/ In a suburban war/ Your part of town against mine/ I saw you standing on the opposite shore/ But by the time the first bombs fell/ We were already bored.”

   “Modern Man” takes a significant turn from the everyday Arcade Fire with a late-80s vibe that includes a steady electric guitar rhythm and some unique spacey distractions throughout, Butler lamenting, “So I wait in line, I’m a modern man/ And the people behind me, they can’t understand/ Makes me feel like something don’t feel right.” “Rococo” instantly took me to old feelings first felt by first impressions of the band…a relatively simple chord progression that’s initially driven by aggressively-strummed acoustic guitar and deep, reverberating bass and strings, until exploding into an instrumental melee of noise, emotion, and distortion, with just the right amount of each.

   “We Used to Wait” is a true gem, call me a sucker for your repetitive, choppy piano backbone. The chords, at once that perfect aforementioned mix of dark and happy, make the song, especially when aided with a catchy synth-bassline and eventually, a string crescendo reminiscent of the epic climax to Neon Bible’s “Windowsill.”

   And “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” at first listen was quick to become my favorite Régine Chassagne-sung track spanning the band’s career. Sounding vaguely at times like Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”, it’s also clearly the band’s danciest tune to date as well, Chassagne’s vocals matching just right in both pitch and attitude. Though it wouldn’t have had any agreeable place on their previous two records, it somehow feels right at home in The Suburbs, and a feel-good closer that makes it harder to think sore thoughts for this most recent endeavor. Like the album’s opener, the upbeat positivity screams a far cry from the truth that they sing: “Sometimes I wonder if the world’s so small/ That we can never get away from the sprawl/ Living in the sprawl/ Dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains/ And there’s no end in sight/ I need the darkness, someone please cut the lights.”

   Boasting 16 tracks, I feared from the get go that they might have gone for quantity over quality on this one. Yeah, the album is perhaps without any truly timeless band classics like Funeral’s “Rebellion (Lies)” or Neon Bible’s “No Cars Go”. And yeah, it also boasts a few less-than-satisfying pieces, like “Month of May”, for example, which I’d swear was The Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop” everytime it starts (nothing against that classic). But they’ve provided us with a [normal] Arcade Fire album’s worth of enjoyment that should easily keep us going for the next few years until they’re ready to do it all over again. With The Suburbs, Arcade Fire has wrestled with and ultimately won the battle over mediocrity: by kicking its ass.

   Advert for their upcoming Madison Square Garden gig (webcast to be directed by Terry Gilliam):

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THIS IS HAPPENING by lcd soundsystem

by Gordon

 

Pitchfork: 9.2           Rolling Stone: 4/5           Metacritic: 84           Spin: 4/5

 

Released: May 2010
Tracklisting:
  1. Dance Yrself Clean [LISTEN]

  2. Drunk Girls
  3. One Touch
  4. All I Want
  5. I Can Change
  6. You Wanted A Hit
  7. Pow Pow
  8. Somebody’s Calling Me
  9. Home

   Admittedly a late bloomer in terms of LCD Soundsystem appreciation (I’d always heard the references, and always put the listens on hold), the artist’s most recent and purportedly last effort, This is Happening, is a true landmark.

   “Dance Yrself Clean” is the first and quite possibly the most important song on the album. For three minutes, a subdued Murphy sings honest yet almost indifferent lines like, “Talking like a jerk, except you are an actual jerk/ And living proof that sometimes friends are mean”, all atop a simple 2-chord back-and-forth put to the beat of near tribal drumming. It’s then that it jumps, out of nowhere, into an epic, 5-minute-long, potentially speaker-blowing bass-synth solo, Murphy now passionately belting even more honest lines like, “Break me into bigger pieces/ So some of me is home with you/ Wait until the weekend/ And we can make our bad dreams come true.” Without this track alone, This is Happening would feel considerably emptier.

   Follow-up “Drunk Girls” is worth mentioning as a quick, party-inducing pop-rock tune, akin to some of the Beastie Boys’ noisy, in-your-face hits. The video below was directed by Spike Jonze. “One Touch” makes for one of the most dance-happy tunes on the album, with just enough near-spaceship-sounding bells and whistles to make you wanna go on a solo dance groove tangent despite whatever present company you may find yourself in.

   Just as some of Murphy’s catchiest and most memorable tracks derive from the repetition of a singular, timeless hook (for example, “All My Friends’” choppy piano, or “Someone Great’s” synth-y bassline, both from 2007’s Sound of Silver), This is Happening’s  “All I Want” jams off of an incessant but never annoying 3-note lick of distorted guitar, Murphy singing chipper lines like, “All I want is your pity/ All I want are your bitter tears…/ From now on I’m someone different/ ‘Cause it’s no fun to be predicting”, and all I want is more.

   “I Can Change” isn’t quite as spectacular as those already listed, but fortunately contains a funky, high-pitched sound of a head-nodder that still quantifies it as utterly enjoyable. With the album’s remaining tracks, however, Murphy’s confidence has unfortunately translated into overextended track times, “Somebody’s Calling Me” particularly muffled and droning. I’d gladly accept a 3-minute whack off of nearly all of these songs’ runtime if it meant gaining two or three more tracks altogether.

   Is it better than its predecessors? As a whole, probably. But there’s still something timeless about the previously mentioned “All My Friends” and “Someone Great” from Murphy’s Sound of Silver that seem inescapably linked to the artist. And while This is Happening packs a wild punch, there’s no doubt that the listening experience would be amped by one’s surrounding environment, so whip it out at a party (double meaning?), or if you’re lucky enough, go see LCD live. I’ve heard wonderful stories.

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CONGRATULATIONS by mgmt

by Gordon

 

Pitchfork: 6.8           Rolling Stone: 3/5           Metacritic: 70           Spin: 4/5

 

Released: April 2010
Tracklisting:
  1. It’s Working [LISTEN]

  2. Song for Dan Treacy
  3. Someone’s Missing
  4. Flash Delirium
  5. I Found A Whistle
  6. Siberian Breaks
  7. Brian Eno
  8. Lady Dada’s Nightmare
  9. Congratulations

   I, like nearly every other MGMT listener, was first drawn to the band for two simple reasons: “Kids” and “Time To Pretend” (for some it might have been only one of the two reasons and for others a third: “Electric Feel”). And I’m fairly certain that at least half of all MGMT listeners have only ever listened to some combination of those songs, whether through parties, radio, mix CDs, or YouTube.

   When I bought Oracular Spectacular in search of more of these hits, I wasn’t too surprised to discover that it contained no more. Instead, it consisted of zany, genre-bending psychadelia that ranged in intensity from hushed to anthemic. None wooed me with first, second or even third listens. But as I soldiered on in growing acceptance and hopeful pursuit, I became very fond of the sound…not nearly as catchy as those mentioned earlier, but bold and refreshing enough.

   And when their second release, Congratulations, hit stores, I, like nearly every other MGMT listener, was anxiously hoping for another “Kids”, another “Time To Pretend”, just one more party-pleaser. Turns out the band actually tried quite hard to avoid this, not altogether happy with the fame and attention that resulted from the success of their earlier hits. And it kind of pisses me off. I’m not one hundred percent convinced they could write another “Kids” if they tried, and this would have been a great time to try (and make their listeners happy as a result).

   What’s left, then, is an album that sounds 100 percent much what 70 percent of Oracular sounded. Opener “It’s Working” (video here), apparently about the ecstasy they regret not doing earlier in their success, is your standard, chorus-y psych-rock, a little retro in its 60s surf-style bassline. The potential to Track 3, “Someone’s Missing”, is unfortunately revealed only in the song’s last 30 seconds, it taking two droning minutes for singer Andrew VanWyngarden to go into his quiet, high-pitched, almost teasing vocals to get us there.

   “Flash Delirium” is an album standout, Pitchfork Media saying it “features flutes, horns, and about seven different sections that reference doo-wop, old school rock’n’roll, electro balladry, Ariel Pink-style lo-fi, wall-of-Spector pop, and The Beatles at their most high.” While the praise seems a little high to me, when I think about it, I kind of agree. Its final, chorus-y minute and a half make for what I hear as the happiest and catchiest album moment. The video below proves that the band may just have the weirdest videos out there today…I don’t always get it but I dig it. “Siberian Breaks”, at just over 12 minutes, and though musically striking for less than half of those, still pulls off some great moments in its ever-changing audio focus, and should be praised for its ambition any way you look at it.

   And closer / title track “Congratulations” which begins like a modern-day version of The Band’s “The Weight”, while sticking mostly to a slow acoustic ballad with VanWyngarden’s vocals lulling on top, serves as one of the few enjoyably relaxing MGMT listens. Though the band may be a bit cocky in its closing sentiments (“Spread my arms and soak up ‘Congratulations’”), I don’t feel that they don’t deserve at least a healthy dose. And I have a feeling that, while it might take a year or more before I’ve truly soaked up the album, it will be at that point that I may very well have much higher praise for it. But damn if they couldn’t have just included one more radio-friendly pop tune.

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HEAVEN IS WHENEVER by the hold steady

by Sean

Pitchfork: 6.2            Rolling Stone: 4/5            Metacritic: 75            Spin: 3/5

 

Released: May 2010
Tracklisting:
  1. The Sweet Part of the City
  2. Soft in the Center
  3. The Weekenders [LISTEN]

  4. The Smidge
  5. Rock Problems
  6. We Can Get Together
  7. Hurricane J
  8. Barely Breathing
  9. Our Whole Lives
  10. A Slight Discomfort

   I wanted to wait on giving my opinion on The Hold Steady’s latest effort because I wanted to love it and I was hoping the love would grow with time. While I have come to enjoy Heaven is Whenever, I’ve also come to the realization that it doesn’t live up to the expectations I had and will continue to bestow upon each Hold Steady release.

   “The Sweet Part of the City” is, on first listen, perhaps the most disappointing opening track of any of The Hold Steady’s albums. It may have been better served towards the end or middle, as it is definitely a good song and just as nostalgic as the rest of their catalog, but doesn’t get your blood flowing the way every other opener has. “Soft in the Center” leans more to the expected and loved Hold Steady sound we’re all used to until the chorus. “You can’t get every girl/ You get the ones you love the best/ You won’t get every girl/ You love the ones you get the best”. Thankfully, Tad Kubler saves the song with his guitar solo.

   “The Weekenders” is supposedly the sequel to a track from my favorite Hold Steady album, Boys and Girls in America’s “Chips Ahoy”. Certainly one of the stronger tracks on Heaven is Whenever, and once again ignoring the chorus, it includes some of Craig Finn’s best lyrics, including one of my favorites: “She said the theme of this party’s the industrial age/ And you came in dressed like a train wreck”.

   I actually really enjoy the slower songs including “We Can Get Together” and the closer, “A Slight Discomfort”. The synth-y background vocals of the former are a bit corny, but it gives us some of the best lyrics on the album. The latter may not be as good as other Hold Steady album closers, and by other I mean all of them, except maybe “Southtown Girls”, but I kinda liked the epic sound of the drums and the string fanfare to end the record.

   Other songs of note: “Hurricane J” sounds a lot like “Stacy’s Mom”, though the end is a highlight. “Barely Breathing” is one of the best songs, but the end is a lowlight. “Our Whole Lives” sounds like a classic Hold Steady tune, just not good enough to be called a classic. Same goes for “Rock Problems” and “The Smidge”. Well, I think that covers the whole album.

   Now I remember why I didn’t want to write about Heaven is Whenever. There just isn’t a whole lot to say. Its a decent album but I pray this isn’t the beginning of the end of the studio greatness of one of my favorite bands, The Hold Steady. I hope Finn and company remember how a resurrection really feels on their next attempt.

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YOSHIMI BATTLES THE PINK ROBOTS by the flaming lips

by Gordon

 

Pitchfork: 8.4           Rolling Stone: 4/5           Metacritic: 84           Spin: N/A

 

Released: July 2002
Tracklisting:
  1. Fight Test
  2. One More Robot / Sympathy 3000-21
  3. Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Pt. 1
  4. Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Pt. 2
  5. In the Morning of the Magicians
  6. Ego Tripping At the Gates of Hell
  7. Are You A Hypnotist?
  8. It’s Summertime
  9. Do You Realize?? [LISTEN]

  10. All We Have Is Now
  11. Approaching Pavonis Mons By Balloon (Utopia Planitia)

   The Flaming Lips are a band and more than that, a musical identity, that I find intimidating to even attempt to categorize or judge. Like Picasso or any other great (modern) artist, there’s the part where everyone agrees that the artist is pretty much a genius, and then the part where no one can agree on the when, why or what for. With my stab at this band I start with what I see as the easiest of roads…Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, an album that even I can’t believe is now eight years old.

   For me (and not at all for any true Flaming Lips fan), the album was my eye-opener, my first and benchmark listen that would interest and propel me into the sound and knowledge of the band. My story isn’t completely unique, of course. The album’s been lauded as “a lush and haunting electronic symphony” by Fortune magazine, “as strange as it is wonderful” by Billboard, “ambitious” by the ever-critical Rolling Stone, and, most flatteringly, Uncut declared it the greatest album released in the magazine’s lifetime. No wonder it made an impression, and mid-high school was just barely a ripe enough age to experience the wonder for myself.

   Opening in what I only later discovered as the brilliant chord progression to Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son”, is “Fight Test”, which, though a near-copy of the 1970 classic, is distinct, funky, and altogether amazing enough to stand alone as a fine song achievement nonetheless. Still electronic through and through, it still, like much of the album, comes off as comparatively tame for the band with respect to their penchant for straight-up off-the-wall musical compositions…and I won’t deny that this works in favor of the album for me and arguably the general listeners’ experience. Frontman Wayne Coyne, though perhaps no genuine prodigy in terms of songwriting, instantly won me over with the song’s enchanting chorus: “I don’t know where the sunbeams end and the starlights begin/ It’s all a mystery/ I don’t know how a man decides what is right for his own life/ It’s all a mystery.”

   The album’s title track (Pt. 1 at least) is another knockout, somehow combining simple acoustic guitar strumming with a steady beat, Coyne’s personable vocals, and contemporary, robot-inspired electro to create an über-catchy tune, one that allows us to forgive and even soak up a chorus like “Oh Yoshimi/ They don’t believe me/ But you won’t let those robots eat me.” The song is brilliantly incapable even of comparison in its standalone choreography, a healthy benefit to the band itself, intended or not, for steering clear of any and all in the realm of sameness with the bulk of their contemporaries. Pt. 2 to the “same track”, while not at all equal in greatness, at least welcomes old visitors and introduces new visitors to the oddities of The Lips with at least some level of mainstream respect.

   “In the Morning of the Magicians” was one to shine through after a few listens, but with its catchy, spacey ambience and semi-serious, ominous synthesizers, it’s up there as one of the greater of the lesser songs on the album. But the third truly genius and nearly timeless song is the now easily-recognized “Do You Realize??” Four brilliant chords, pounded on the obvious choice of acoustic guitar, and aided by the echo-y and passionately-sung lyrics by Coyne, make for the feel-good hit of what may be the band’s lifetime. In one of the most honestly-driven songs I’ve ever heard, he sings, “Do you realize/ That you have the most beautiful face?/ Do you realize/ We’re floating in space?/ Do you realize/ That happiness makes you cry?/ Do you realize/ That everyone you know someday will die?/ And instead of saying all of your goodbyes/ Let them know you realize that life goes fast/ It’s hard to make the good things last/ You realize the sun don’t go down/ It’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning round.”

   Don’t get me wrong. Yoshimi isn’t without its in-between and unwelcome moments of confusion and ill-advised, drug-induced psych-trips to outer space. But the simple brilliance behind this, their tenth release, might just be that they broke all that up with the handful of beautiful arrangements that I now choose to assimilate with my own mental image of the band. These easier-going-down tracks may, for all I know, have been accidents in the songwriting process, but make Yoshimi just perfect enough to happily take the rest of the record down with them too.

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GO by jónsi

by Gordon

Pitchfork: 8.1          Rolling Stone: 3.5/5          Metacritic: 77          Spin: 4/5

 

Released: April 2010
Tracklisting:
  1. Go Do [LISTEN]

  2. Animal Arithmetic
  3. Tornado
  4. Boy Lilikoi
  5. Sinking Friendships
  6. Kolniður
  7. Around Us
  8. Grow Till Tall
  9. Hengilás

   For any fan of Iceland’s Sigur Rós, the arrival of singer Jón Þór Birgisson’s (or more simply, Jónsi’s) solo album came with anxious anticipation. As a leader of a band that’s done a pretty good job at changing up their style over the last decade, almost always reaping good results, one couldn’t help but wonder whether he’d do the same when relying on his own devices. Turns out, as with most Sigur Rós records, it’s a little of both, at once a separation from the familiar and to-be-expected while simultaneously refreshingly recognizable as the sound that Sigur Rós fans have grown to love in the first place.

   “Go Do” is arguably the best offering from Go, and making it the first track may have been a good decision to draw wondering listeners in. It’s both a little more uptempo and happy than most of Birgisson’s previous work, though not too dissimilar from the vibe that was attempted with the band’s most recent, Með Suð í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust, and not without just the right amount of emotion (Jónsi’s lyrics never that straightforward, this comes from the music alone). Opening with fluttery flute and enough Sigur Rós vocal “noises” to seem satirical were they not actually from the singer himself, it becomes a thumping anthem, Jónsi’s vocals soaring to degrees previously shied away from.

   The thumping continues in the following track, “Animal Arithmetic” (and for much of the album). It becomes a bit repetitive and same-old, but still works for most songs. Full of chaotic drumming and whirling instrumentation, the track is a happy burst of energy from Birgisson, who this time steps perhaps out of his own comfort zone, switching to predominantly English lyrics.

   Fortunately the artist reverts to classic Sigur Rós morose and beautiful with “Tornado”. Beginning in sound and style much like Sufjan Stevens’ “Redford” from his “Michigan” album, it transforms from subdued, slow and string-heavy to bold, loud and cymbal-crashing. “Boy Lilikoi” switches back to happy, Jónsi now recalling what seem to be childhood fantasy and wonder. The last minute is particularly good.

   Skipping the less-memorable middle track “Sinking Friendships”, “Kolniður” is particularly dark and “Grow Till Tall” is particularly sentimental. “Around Us” is another gem, with playful piano more at center stage, reminiscent of past greats like “Starálfur” from Ágætis Byrjun. And he closes with “Hengilás”, comfortable and familiar in its throwback to earlier work from the band, like “Untitled 1” for example, from ( ).

   But while no song seems to offend the senses, Jónsi might have made more of an impression had he not relied on nearly all the same tactics and sounds throughout the album. Both he and his fans know what he’s good at, and he’s given it to them with Go, but giving us a surprise once in a while might serve the artist well. That said, this album should float well with both hardcore Sigur Rós fans and noobs who haven’t even heard of the band. While I’m not quite sure why he went off on his own to record what in many ways fits with the rest of the band’s work, there’s apparently not much reason to complain either.

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